We stopped somewhere in Central Thailand bright and early in the morning to tour a temple. We couldn’t cross Thailand without stopping at at least one. I’d been on the bus for something like 16-17 hours and I hadn’t slept. I don’t sleep on buses. I was constipated and crampy. The ear plugs I had brought didn’t work all that well. Oh, they helped in deadening the drone of the air conditioning, and they muffled the two and a half hour karaoke session a bit, but the bass from the sound system came up through the seats and down from the ceiling. There was no escaping the pounding beat. The AC was cranked full bore and the vents overhead had been so worked over they couldn’t be turned off or down, adjusted or repositioned to lessen their gale force directionality. They blew cold air down my neck and chest all night. The tour bus provided some flimsy blankets and they did little but make me look silly wrapped around me babushka-like for the minimal of relief. We stopped every few hours for bathroom breaks and since I couldn’t sleep was able to at least warm myself up for a few minutes outside in the seasonal Thai heat of late April (85 degrees at 3 AM).
I was joining a dozen and a half teachers from my school and another dozen and a half of their family and friends for a 6-day excursion through Thailand and Laos, into Vietnam and back again. The bus was a big double decker job where you sit up high. Below was a tiny toilet, a big compartment for the luggage and a small enclosed room to accommodate the hardcore card players. The tour company provided two guides and two drivers and a couple of kids to help with loading the luggage and handing out snacks and water. I think the kids were also in charge of selecting the sappy Thai music videos and ridiculous Thai movies that played for hours, although I did like the one about the all-ladyboy volleyball team.
We started out from the big Tesco late in the afternoon, about 4 PM, and would be driving through the night and all the next day before finally arriving at a hotel twenty eight hours later before crpssing the border into Laos. I had grabbed a seat in the back where there’s extra legroom next to an emergency door and where I wouldn’t have to worry about anyone reclining their seat into my knees. The seats in the front of the bus filled in quickly and I didn’t realize the impact of the AC vents until we’d been on the road for a few hours and the sun had gone down. By then it was too late to move.
Law-Laeng, one of our guides, was a comedian and she specifically catered to the women in the group, telling bawdy jokes (or so I was told). Her voice was mimicking and mocking, seductive and catty and she kept the women in stitches.
Before crossing the Mekong River into Laos we switched buses, to one not quite as big or as fancy, with the driver on the left and the exit doors on the right. Laos and Vietnam, as well as Cambodia, drive on the right side of the road; Thailand on the left. We left the two drivers and the boys at the border and we acquired one new driver and two additional guides, fluent in Thai and Vietnamese. They spoke for hours on the history of Laos and Vietnam and the attractions we’d be seeing. Unfortunately I didn’t understand a word that was said and blankly stared out the window at the passing countryside.
Laos was dry and dusty and poor. Goats and cows wandered and grazed unattended next to the road. We stopped for lunch at a place that caters to tour buses and before I knew it we were in Vietnam, descending the mountains toward the sea. Vietnam got greener and seemed more agrarian, small farms and rice paddies and home gardens dominated. We visited all the right tourist attractions in the central part of the country. We passed through Southeast Asia’s longest tunnel. We visited the underground tunnel community of Vihn Moc, inhabited by some 60 families between 1966 and 1972 during the Vietnam War. We stayed in Hue and ambled around the Royal Palace and the Phuoc Duyen Tower where I could enjoy the serenity and artistry of the incredible bonsai. We drove down the coast to Danang and admired the Dragon Bridge. We visited the giant Goddess of Mercy statue on the hill overlooking the South China Sea. Measuring in at 67 meters it stands 29 meters taller than Christ Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. We visited Ancient Town in Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We went back to Danang and traveled westward into the mountains to Ba Na Hills Resort, enjoying a breathtaking cable car ride up and down the mountain (Guiness World Book record holder). The mountain air was refreshingly cool and crisp, something I hadn’t felt in well over a year. The posh French resort on top of the mountain had a cathedral and pretty slick indoor amusement park. And of course we couldn’t go anywhere without stopping to shop.
Each day we were up at 5, ate breakfast at 6 and were packed and loaded onto the bus by 7. And by the end of each afternoon the free space on the bus got less and less. We stopped at little places catering to large tour groups, standalone enterprises selling Vietnamese tea, coffee and whiskey, Vietnamese pearls, Vietnamese marble, and Vietnamese clothing and personal items made out of bamboo fibers. Every attraction we stopped at had a small market for souvenirs and Ancient Town in Hoi An was one big tourist market.
Our last day in Vietnam began like all the rest, up at 5, breakfast at 6, on the bus at 7. We climbed the mountains westward into Laos and then into Thailand. We spent time at each duty free shop while our passports and my visa alone was processed and stamped. (Thailand is part of the ASEAN community and visas between member countries are not needed.) We entered Thailand mid-afternoon and stopped at one final market for any last minute purchases. We ate dinner and switched back to our original bus, our original drivers, leaving behind our Vietnamese guides. We left at 6 PM and drove straight through the night and all the next day, arriving home at 4 PM. The air conditioning hadn’t been fixed and I had another sleepless night. I came home with a couple of T-shirts, bronchitis and a commitment to join the next tour to Korea. For that one, we’re flying.